I’ve always enjoyed my previous visits to Garden Suburb Theatre productions so I was happy to take a trip to the end of the Northern Line to see them performing a new pantomime at the Bull Theatre. The venue was new to me too, and seemed well suited to a show needing lots of audience interaction, if perhaps a little more challenging for set designers.
Aladdin is one of the most traditional and popular pantomimes, but this was an original take on the tale with a new script which seemed well-suited to the capabilities of this cast. Speaking of the cast, one of the delights of community pantomime is the age-range to be seen on stage, but this production surpassed any other I have seen this year in the difference in ages between the youngest and oldest cast members; although the recurrence of surnames showed that this was also a show of families as well as a family show. The youngest members of the cast, if understandably less confident than some of the more mature performers on stage, were nevertheless good value and brought fun and endearment to the production.
Mary Musker as Director should be complimented on bringing together this very disparate cast and creating an enjoyable and impressive pantomime which managed to preserve much of the traditional strengths of the genre alongside some original touches. Musical Director Tim Solomons led a three-piece band who contributed greatly when playing but had little to do, especially in the second half. This was puzzling until a glance at the cast list (in the excellently-designed programme) revealed that two-thirds of the band were playing characters on stage in the second half. This was presumably unavoidable (and they were good in the roles) but mixing live and recorded music did make the case for live music where possible, and the end of the first half badly needed a rousing song.
This was a pantomime with less music than is often the case and a few more songs or dance numbers throughout would have been welcome – and could perhaps have helped cover some of the set changes as well as giving more opportunities for choreographer Emma Pleass, who is to be congratulated for taking on the task with such a young ensemble. With a chorus this short we should be thankful the sightlines are so good at the Bull Theatre or they would have been impossible to see.
The set (Andy Farrer and Jo Eggleton Rance) was extremely well painted and looked good on the open and rather unforgiving stage at the Bull, but changing it between scenes was challenging for the backstage crew. They coped well and the band played along to cover the changes but the need to work at height by standing on chairs did hold up the action. Perhaps some form of folding flats that open like a book and can be turned over page by page, as is often done by other groups working on thrust stages like this? The flying carpet design was a nice touch, but hardly seen at all and over in a flash – after all that work making the props with false legs, best to get more value from it.
Dave Barron’s script had some very nice touches, including the enhanced role given to Trump the Camel, with kudos to the young perfomers inside, Jonah Maddocks and Maya Woolf, who had to negotiate the set and even climb inside the washing machine. I also enjoyed the meta-panto moments about not having the performing rights for some songs. Audience interaction played its necessary part, but if characters are in the audience talking to them, don’t have anyone on stage continuing the dialogue – the audience don’t know who to listen to.
It was good to see the script included versions of the traditional routines like the washing machine in the laundrette and most of the stock characters were included. Alongside them were a variety of bit-parts, essential in any script intended for an amateur society, and well-played here by some of the more mature members of the company, although occasionally needing a little more pace; but this was the first night.
I wasn’t totally convinced that the transformation of Wishy Washy into Agent X, despite an energetic performance by Emma Pleass, but the replacement of Abanazer with Threezameh the Evil worked well, especially in the impressive and hard-working hands of Lorena Moreau, a baddie who can also play comedy and has the timing to interact with the Dame. Nice work too from India de Bono as one half of a comedy duo.
For the most part, the comedy was strong although it is always best to integrate jokes into the script so that if no-one laughs there is no awkward silence. Including lines like “I’m going to tell you some jokes about…” is always risky and should be avoided. Most of the traditional pantomime rudery focussed on the flatulent camel (perhaps a little over-done) but there were a couple of lapses of taste: mentions of prison showers and soap or words like brothel do not sit well in a family pantomime. Such lapses were rare however.
In a large cast with no real weak links it is impossible to mention everyone, but there were two performances that will remain with me. I have no idea if Oz Ouchoka has played Dame before, but this was a master-class in how to do so. He looked the part, bonded with the audience and even covered for any little hitches by calling for a delayed blackout or helping others out. He is one of those performers who make others on stage feel safe and supported; I hope to see him play the role again.
Performance of the night for me, however, especially given his youth, was Lucas Farrer as Slap the Monkey. Always in character whether the focus of the action or not, this was a performance of great skill both physically, where his movement was excellent, and in the amazing range of intonations he gave to the single word banana. His pratfalls and slaps were excellent too, but badly needed underlining from the percussionist. A performer to watch, and another I will hope to see again, perhaps in next year’s GST production of Peter Pan.
Chris Abbott (Sardines review)